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Said to be the oldest known example of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh is more properly a cycle of shorter poems, dating from the third millennium BC.
Like many of the ancient epics, this was based partly on folklore and partly on reality. Gilgamesh was King of 'Uruk of the walls' and, according to a contemporary list of kings, reigned for 162 years. While this seems improbable, the same list claims that his father, Lugulbanda, held the throne for over 1200.
Gilgamesh is thought to have been a traveller who settled in Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq, and took the throne by force, which explains why the people had disliked him.
Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin1 for his amusement, his arrogance knows no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute.
There is no complete version of the Gilgamesh cycle, nor is there even a complete collation. That which we do have all comes from near Eastern cultures, such as the Sumerians, Assyrians and Semites. It was not translated until the 19th Century, as all versions are written in cuneiform and there was no equivalent of the hieroglyphic Rosetta stone. Cuneiform is an alphabet created by indenting a wedge-shaped reed end onto a wax tablet, thus creating a triangular shape. These are aligned horizontally and vertically to create the characters.
As the different cultures represented by the cycle each had their own religion, the names of some of the gods in the cycle vary. For instance, the god called Ea in one version2, is also called Enki.
Apart from other small fragments of poems from the same libraries as the Gilgamesh Epic, the only known examples of contemporary or earlier writing are financial records, lists, and other documentary texts. An example is the library at Kultepe in Turkey and while it contained many thousands of tablets, only one was of a literary form... and that was a curse.
Gilgamesh King in Uruk
Gilgamesh was created as two parts god and one part human. He was endowed with beauty, and courage. In Uruk, he built great walls to defend it.
The Coming of Enkidu
Enkidu was created by Aruru, the goddess of creation, to be the equal and competitor of Gilgamesh. He ate, slept, and lived as the animals, until Gilgamesh sent a harlot to lure him to the city. When Gilgamesh met Enkidu they became as brothers.
The Forest Journey
Gilgamesh, with Enkidu, must travel to the Cedar Forest to show his superiority. It is protected by Humbaba, whose name means hugeness.
When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. He guards the cedars so well that when the wild heifer stirs in the forest, though she is sixty leagues distant, he hears her.
Gilgamesh prays to Shamash, the sun god, and then he and Enkidu set off on their trek. They enter the forest, cut down a cedar, and defeat Humbaba.
Ishtar and Gilgamesh
Ishtar, goddess of love and war, sees Gilgamesh who has slain Humbaba, and tells him that she wishes to make him her bridegroom. He declines, recalling the fates of her previous lovers, who were turned into a bird with a broken wing, a mole, and a wolf. Enraged she summons the Bull of Heaven3 to kill him. Enkidu seizes the bull by the horns (ahem), and allows Gilgamesh to slay it.
The Death of Enkidu
The gods decide that for destroying the Bull of Heaven, 'one of the two must die'. As it was actually Enkidu who felled the cedar, slew Humbaba, and levelled the Forest of Cedars, he is chosen to perish. After he has cursed and praised those whom he sees fit, he passes on, and Gilgamesh weeps for seven days, eating the wild animals and wearing their skins in mourning.
The Search for Everlasting Life
Seeing Enkidu die turns Gilgamesh's mind to his own mortality, and he finds that he doesn't like the idea. He seeks the secret of life eternal by trying to find Utnapishtim, the only man whom the gods have decreed can last forever. The way is guarded by two Man-Scorpions, who allow him to pass as he is made in part of god, but warn him of the 12 leagues of darkness, which he has to traverse to reach the Garden of the Gods. There Siduri, the wine maker, tells him how to reach Utnapishtim.
Gilgamesh must cross the Ocean and the Water of Death, but breaks the tackle of the boat belonging to the ferryman, Urshanabi. The tackle and 'stone things' protect Urshanabi from the Water of Death, so they must cross without touching the water. To do this, Gilgamesh fashions 120 beams, 60 cubits long, and uses them to punt across the Ocean, although one can't help feeling that there might have been an easier way. When he has crossed he finds Utnapishtim, who informs him of the reason for his immortality.
A long time past, the gods had decided to put an end to mankind, as the earth was too loud and they were unable to sleep. One of the gods, Ea, warned Utnapishtim of this and instructed him to build a boat. Into this boat he took his family, and the seed of each type of animal. The storm raged for six days and nights, but finally subsided, and the boat came to rest on the mountain of Nisir. Enlil took Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them immortality at 'the mouth of the rivers'.
Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a plant that, when eaten, can restore the beauty of youth. Gilgamesh returns to the Land of the Living, finds this plant, and goes on towards Uruk. Rather than devour it himself, he decides to share it among the elders of the city. Unfortunately for them - and for Gilgamesh - as he is drinking from a well, a serpent comes up, takes the plant and consumes it, sloughs its skin (a symbol of the return of youth) and disappears.
The Death of Gilgamesh
Upon returning to Uruk, the gods decide that Gligamesh's destiny has been fulfilled, and it is his time to tread 'the road of no-return'. The people are sorrowful, and weigh up their offerings to him.
The Story of the Cataclysmic Flood
Like many cultures, the near Eastern peoples who wrote the Gilgamesh cycle had their own version of a cataclysmic flood that all but destroyed humanity. Utnapishtim here takes the place of Old Testament Noah, Sumerian Ziusudra, Babylonian Atrahasis.
There are two explanations for this common piece of folklore. Firstly, that it was a tale invented in one culture that by various means migrated across the Mediterranean world, picking up slight alterations as it was adapted by different cultures. The alternative is that there genuinely was a great flood that was witnessed by each of the societies, and they independently devised these separate accounts. Although there is geological evidence for a huge flood at the end of the last Ice Age, it occurred many millennia before the earliest evidence of literary civilization. This does not rule out the possibility that it was, as are many tales, told from generation to generation, and did not get written down until later.